poetry, publishing, writers, writing

On the Color of Names

Asian-sounding Pen Name Gets White Guy in Trouble

So, I read the story linked to above from the Washington Post. Here’s my two cents, for what it’s worth:

As a plainly named, semi-average white guy, I too have considered using a name that sounds “less Caucasian.” In today’s literary marketplace, it sometimes feels like people with humdrum, plain-Jane names get overshadowed by those without them, no matter what the ethnicity, gender, or background in question may be.

“Oh, to be a Li-Young Lee, a Marina Tsvetaeva, or a Yusef Komunyakaa!” say the Joe Smiths of the writing world. Of course, poets’ names are not their strength (although the aforementioned ones, especially, are impressive and beautiful sounding). It is the authors’ fine work that has earned them their spot in the literary marketplace. Their awards are many, and rightfully so. It is not a matter of name alliteration, length, or origin that has raised them to prominence; it is the quality of their writing, and a strong history of artistic contribution.

Statistics from a number of sources show us that writers from historically underrepresented communities still struggle to get their work in front of readers, and the good folks at Vida: Women in Literary Arts have demonstrated the imbalance between published male writers and their female counterparts. Nonetheless, when one opens a copy of Poets and Writers, AWP Chronicle, and other trade pubs that scribblers like me regularly receive, the most highly publicized writers can seem to be comprised of those with extraordinary and uniquely identifiable names, no matter what their color or creed.

Consider if you will the glossy back cover of the September 2015 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle: There, in a full-color ad for Grand Valley State University’s Poetry Night 2015, are Kwame Dawes and Aimee Nezhukumatathil. I wish I could be at the advertised event, not because I want an excuse to form such lovely names more often, but because these are exceptional writers. Inside the back cover, a full-page ad for the Sanibel Island Writers Conference (another event I wish I could attend this year) proclaims the presence of Edwidge Danticat, another brand-name poet whose work is as striking as her name, if not moreso. A quick flip through the magazine reveals Nikki Giovanni, Ravi Shankar, Minal Hajratwala, Luisa Igloria, and Natasha Trethewey, among other names like poems.

Admittedly, my name has sometimes raised an editor’s eyebrow or two because “John Davis Jr.” could belong to someone of any number of races. Sure, it’s a white guy’s name, but it could belong to someone of African-American descent, Native American descent, or any one of many other races, I’ve found. A quick run of my name through Google reveals a rainbow of people from all walks of life. Some are realtors, some are doctors, and one even ran for president in 2012. I’ve had editors presume I was African-American because my name reminded them of another famous “Davis Jr.” — Sammy Davis Jr. No joke. I didn’t mind the confusion, nor did I take offense. But then, I’m a member of this country’s majority. My people are not disenfranchised, nor have they faced excessive hurdles in society. And maybe that’s why Michael Derrick Hudson’s decision irks me.

It irks me for the same reasons that dialect-discrimination irks me, actually. I’ve had plenty of people assume over the years (based upon my size, appearance, and Floridian accent) that I am ignorant. “Dumb Southerner” is the label some have attached without knowing my full story. They hear my use of the colloquial “y’all” and jump to their conclusions, which are, ultimately, dead wrong. Yes, my family has farmed for three generations (at least). But we’ve also been educators, doctors, lawyers, professors, and Air Force pilots, just to name a few other roles. I don’t appreciate others assuming we’re hillbillies any more than writers of Asian descent appreciate “Yi-Fen Chou.”

So what’ll it be, Mr. Hudson? You think your name sounds too Anglo-Saxon? Oh, gosh. Better fix that right up. You’ll never get published now. It’s not like Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, C.K. Williams, or — let’s go back a ways — Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost, or W.B. Yeats have had any luck. I can see your quandary, what with all the illogical repression of white male names and voices, It’s clearly a wonder that your work has managed to see the light of day.

But I get it. I really do. All those delicious-sounding syllables from diverse cultures are out there, just waiting to be exhaled. And they’re tempting. I know they are. That, however, doesn’t make them yours to appropriate. Might I be so bold as to suggest Mr. Hudson read an excellent essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr. entitled “What’s In a Name?” I assign it to my students regularly. When you read it, consider yourself Mr. Wilson, Michael. For in essence, you have called Asian and Asian-American writers everywhere “George.” And that’s not okay.

poetry, Uncategorized

Of Robert, Emily, and Thoughts of Legacy

Emily1
Emily Dickinson’s portrait in the Dickinson/Frost collection of Jones Library, Amherst, Mass.

Recently, I attended the Juniper Writing Institute at University of Massachusetts in Amherst. For the unaware, Amherst is the hometown of one of the canon’s most memorable and memorized poets, Emily Dickinson. Also nearby, one can find the farm of another great American poet, Robert Frost, considered by many to be the landmark poet of the 20th century. Both of these poets have meant a great deal to me as a writer throughout my career, and being in their part of the world was an unforgettable experience.

But my own independent studies of both Frost and Dickinson raised a new question for me — one that awoke me at 3:30 a.m. the first night of the conference. So distracted was I from this recurring question that I arose from my semi-peaceful travel slumber to write by hand in my journal. Here, in its unedited version, is the transcript of my late-night, early-morning writing:

 

6/21/15, 3:30 a.m.

I am awake because Emily Dickinson will not leave my mind. Having visited her house yesterday, I keep seeing her small corner bedroom over and over: its little sleigh bed, its dresser, its white-knobbed doors.

The Dickinson House in downtown Amherst.
The Dickinson House in downtown Amherst.

Most of all, though, I think of all its windows. The tour guide kept using phrases like “extraordinary fenestration,” and she did not exaggerate. The natural light in Emily’s room was almost church-like. White and spiritual, it seemed to give life to the broad, thick beams of hardwood flooring there. As old as everything was, the light carried no dust. The air in her quarters was as pristine as the white housecoat she sewed for herself. On that air was the scent of history, a rare mixture of old wood, natural fibers, and unstirred earth.

I glimpsed the Amherst world from her window. Her tiny desk was positioned before it, and for a second, I could visualize her sitting, penning lines of legacy. Some of these lines also awoke me today, mostly her first lines:

Hope is the thing with feathers

I dwell in possibility

My teacher-mind sets to work on these, and I envision exercises for my students:

(Abstraction) is the thing with (concrete object)

What idea or notion do you “dwell in,” and why?

EmilyCollection
A collection of Emily’s things at the Jones Library in Amherst.

 The second of these questions applies to me as well, for once again I find myself too fixated on the idea of leaving my mark as an artist. I dream of a time when others tour my family’s farm or my smaller lake-view house in the city to see where and why and how I worked. Even at this mature age, my boyish whims of literary celebrity return, thanks in part to Emily Dickinson. My pragmatism intervenes, though, and tells me I need to sleep before daylight arrives. [End Journal Entry]

So, I was at my most honest in the middle of the night. But my thoughts of leaving a literary trail for others to follow would not stop with Emily. No, not when the home and writing space of one of my all-time literary heroes was nearby.

Upon my visit to the Frost Farm in Derry, New Hampshire, I was privileged to see his barn, his house (both floors!) and the land surrounding. I stood where the great man stood, walked where he walked, and even trod the staircase his wife descended, prompting the poem “Home Burial.” All these experiences once again raised the concern of posthumous impact.

Would people want to similarly experience the spaces where I have created? Will my own work ever merit that kind of attention, before or after my death? The literary marketplace is full of Frost-wannabes and Dickinson-aspirants, and who am I to even ponder such weighty matters? How does proving oneself a “fanboy” of literature make one any more likely to succeed at literary and scholarly endeavors? And thusly, I tortured myself further.

I visited the Robert Frost Library. I spent hours perusing the Frost-Dickinson collection in the Jones Library of Amherst. I allowed my imagination to run wild with scenarios concocted only from the notion of greatnesses recognized. And once again, I found myself twisting my brain into the same enigma that it has puzzled over like a Rubik’s Cube countless times before: Will I matter? Will my work matter? How do I ensure both? What steps must I next take to be certain that I’m not forgotten, like so many writers of the past?

EmilySign
A sign on the grounds of the Dickinson House in Amherst. This passage is directly from Emily’s poetry.
FrostBust
A bust of the great man himself inside the Dickinson/Frost collection at Jones Library.

I had hoped by now, at my nearly 40 years of age, that such concerns would really be a thing of the past. After all, I continue to write, and I’m sure that one day I’ll see some wider recognition than my meager efforts have so far produced. Like all writers, I’d like a Pulitzer and maybe some other big awards (see prior posts), but honestly, at the end of the day, what I’m really aiming to do is preserve people, times, and places that have mattered to me the most. If my poetry results in just a few people gaining a broader appreciation of the heritage, values, and experiences I’ve received in this life, then I’ve won. And I don’t mean that all of my poems are totally autobiographical — certainly many are not. But all of them lend themselves toward ideas, visions, and perspectives that, however universal, have arisen somehow from the life I’ve lived.

Will people care about that life? Why should they? Will students sit through laborious documentaries about the different periods in my writing timeline? Will my work be anthologized in textbooks of the future? Such inquiries can drive one mad, if left unchecked. Spending countless hours in the homes of the greats might not make me a better writer, but it did accomplish one thing — it allowed me to see a shared humanity, a common thread of inspiration, motivation, and dedication.

Persistence, diligence, and  enormous creativity are shared traits among those we celebrate today, so long after their earthly departures. And perhaps it is these traits that we should take away from memorials and museums commemorating their contributions. More than the vanity of asking, “How can I attain their level of distinction?”, perhaps we (I) should be asking, “What can I do continuously and creatively well to positively affect my world?” Such a question surpasses the superficial desire for remembrance, and enters us into a more philosophical, even theological, realm. May our answers lead us not to fame, not to fortune, and not to solipsism. Rather, may they lead us to be better human beings, produce finer work, and seize the opportunities of the everyday.

Frost's Desk
Robert Frost’s writing space at Frost Farm in Derry, N.H.
FrostStatue
A statue of Frost just outside the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

A Writer-Teacher’s Birthday

typewriter-cakeIn looking back over my site here, I noticed that last year I also posted on my birthday. I thought that by doing so again this year, it might make a nice little tradition of sorts. I promise, however, not to wax eloquent about my resolutions or grand goals for the year ahead. That’s what New Year’s posts are for, after all.

What I do know is this: Having made it through well more than a third of a century now, I feel an increasing compulsion to strengthen my legacy. An awful lot of my writing heroes were far better known and more respected than I before they were my current age. But with that said, an equally great number of authors I look up to weren’t even map dots on the literary landscape until they were much older. I’m increasingly thankful for those men and women who “bloomed late.” Their stories are consolations and reassurances when I, like another poet, find myself “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.”

In my twenties, I still didn’t possess the maturity and experience necessary to produce respectable literary work. Plenty of great writers have produced meaningful literature in their twenties, but I hadn’t even begun figuring out life. Even if I had attempted a graduate-level program or “the great American novel,” I probably would have done the bare minimum to get by, and spent most of my time dwelling in pseudo-angst that I associated with “the writer type.”

In other words, I would have adopted the persona of a writer — some weird hybrid of Edgar Allan Poe and Ernest Hemingway, no doubt — and become a self-fulfilling prophecy of bad habits and dramatic life choices. I would have been concerned with acting out a tragic and memorable biography rather than the actual writing of excellent work. In some ways, I did exactly that: During my post-college years as a journalist, I sought out dangerous assignments, got shot at, had broken bottles hurled at my head, drove through a wall of fire, and gained my fair share of other brushes with mortality. I felt like I had something to prove. My lifestyle made for great coffeehouse stories, but I wasn’t making any real difference. Police scanner on my hip, the only thing I sought was juicy headlines and personal adventure. My time in journalism was devoted almost exclusively to my own selfish desires. Employers were merely means to the end of front-page byline glory.

There is a distinct benefit in having more life behind me: Having evolved into a husband, father, educator, and community member, I’m able to see my place in the universe with a little greater clarity. Selfish concerns over identity and others’ perceptions are subordinate to the demands of family, work, school, and faith. Living through most of my thirties has allowed me to gain richer exposure to the world, and to better understand what it means to earnestly make a lasting impact. Maybe my writing won’t be the major part of my legacy; it could be that the students I’ve engaged are a bigger part of my future memoirs than my experiences in the literary realm. And I’m okay with that. In fact, more than okay. I’d like one day to say that I’ve measured my life, not in coffee spoons like Eliot, but in student successes (excuse the cliche). And if my poetry and my other words happen to find a place in the public consciousness while I’m at it, then so much the better.

Sure, I’m going to keep pushing my writing. Absolutely, I’m going to continue to submit and publish (hopefully) with regularity. Whether my printed words or my classroom creativity will become my greater contribution, I don’t know. And for right now, that’s perfectly fine. The next chapter is still waiting to be written.

poetry, Uncategorized

Making “the Small Time”

Last night, I was privileged to attend Writer’s Harvest 2012, an event at University of South Florida. People paid $5 at the door, or brought three canned goods to help feed the hungry. In exchange, listeners and participants got to hear readings from the likes of Jeff Parker and poet Traci Brimhall. The hall where the event was being held was standing-room only. Of course, this was in Tampa, where the literary arts have a pretty loyal following.

In smaller towns like mine, poetry readings are generally greeted by a handful of patrons who feel an “obligation” to support writing and culture in general. That being said, these “few but proud” gatherings have their own unique benefits. For one, small gatherings allow greater intimacy with the work presented. The poet can speak about the writing and be understood well, and usually, the readings are far more personal. Addressing a hall full of 500 people might be a rush, but it loses some of its closeness. Both the work and the artist are “drowned out” somewhat by the environment.

Comparing venues and styles of presentation caused me to think a little about the up-and-comers (like yours truly) who have to fight for their space in the limelight. Library and coffeehouse readings are great, and having a loyal little flock appreciate your work is nice. But at the end of the day, making the small time is exactly that — small. We poets are not unlike aspiring country crooners: Like them, we have to “pay our dues” in the dives and the honky-tonks of literature — the shabby cafes and tiny conference rooms where a handfull of people can begin to spread the word.

There are no backlit marquees or laser-printed fliers proclaiming the greatness of the small-town writer. This is why so many scribblers migrate to locales like New York City, where, with any luck, one’s work can be heard and experienced by larger crowds and potential game-changers for one’s writing career. However, throwing fate to a place populated by similar dreamers and doers has its own hazards. All of the old “fish bowl” cliches have some element of truth; one can be a big fish in a small pond or a smaller fish in a larger pond. It depends on your desires.

Personally, I would prefer not to be a fish at all. I write because I like to, I read because I love the music of language, and I appreciate people who appreciate my work. Whether that’s a crowd of 5 or 5,000, I’m simply happy to be the attended voice. Yes, I’d like one day to move beyond “the small time,” but for now, with my situation in life, I’ll take the sporadic applause of a few over the ovations of masses. There’s time for both yet.

poetry, Uncategorized

Literary Wingmen

ImageT.E. Hulme wrote six poems in his life, with the best known piece being a short little near-pastoral titled “Autumn.” But this Englishman, who fought in World War I, is known better for his attachment to other greats. The company he kept included big names in the world of poetry, including Eliot, H.D., and a number of well-known imagists. He joined poetry clubs and took part in literary events where better-known authors read and were celebrated, and in 1917, he was shot and killed in wartime. He was only 34. His legacy today is largely attached to the reputation of better-known names from literature like those mentioned above. Scholars today refer to him more as a “critic” than a poet.

The lesson of Hulme’s life is one all writers, and especially poets, should take to heart: While being around “names” might be exhilirating, and doing so may have its own benefits, it is imperative that we not forget who we’re really in this business for — ourselves. Oh sure, I could go on some great philanthropic rant about how writing is “all for the readers,” or “to make society and culture better,” but at the end of the day, let’s get real: The reason writers write is to be read and recognized by others. No matter how charitable or noble our other motives may be, the one driving force behind writing is the thought that someone else will take in and appreciate our words.

So, if one is constantly “hanging around” others who are already established, that might be fun and even rewarding, but honestly, when the fat lady sings, who wants to be remembered as “that guy who hung around (famous name here)?” Making a literary contribution demands more than being the bookish equivalent of a Kardashian. Staking out one’s own path and territory is as necessary in the writing world as it is in business. Warren Buffett didn’t get where he is by riding the coattails of Rockefellers, and today’s writer can’t expect to be remembered by sitting on Grisham’s front porch, either.

Certainly this isn’t to say that receiving mentorship from “names” isn’t helpful; it definitely is. But at some point, it’s time to leave the nest and spread one’s own wings. My aspiration is that, when my time comes, I’m not put into the history books like Hulme; by then, I will hopefully have made a significant impact that is beyond “knowing and imitating good poets.” No doubt my writer friends desire something similar. Let’s begin forging that path today. Our literary legacies depend upon it.

Uncategorized

Birthdays and self-imposed deadlines

Interesting thing about inching closer to the big 4-0: It really makes you put on the afterburners as a writer. After all, when that magic number arrives, one is no longer considered a “young” writer anymore — you’re supposed to know your chops, demonstrate proficiency, and be well on your way to bigger and better things. As it is, I have not fulfilled the goals I set out for myself back in my early 30s, and so now especially, I’m feeling the tug and pull of age beckoning me to “Carpe Diem.” Many of the men and women who are finding success in the literary world are younger than I am now, and if I’m going to do this thing, then it’s time to do it right and truly. As this birthday arrives, I pledge myself to devotion to my craft and its ambitions. No longer will I passively go about the business of writing. It is time to seize the horns of destiny and lead it where I want it to take me. 40 draws near, and so, it is time to stand up and be counted. Get ready, readers — my time to shine is on its way.

poetry, Uncategorized

Poets: Keeping the “human” in humanities

One thing I really like about being in the world of poetry is this: Even though a lot of poets are very well-known and have celebrity-like status in the literary realm, most of the time they remain very approachable on a personal level. Take, for instance, C.K. Williams. Now here’s a guy who has won major awards, published well-received books, seen his name in major magazines, and taught in prestigious locations all over the world. And yet, when encounters a fan of his work (like yours truly), he’s not so stuffy and pretentious that he won’t add you on Facebook. Little things like that are huge, especially to up-and-comers like me — the fact that “big name poets” (see previous entries) would associate themselves with rank newbies is a testament to their humanity and humility.

Certainly, there exist those writers who perceive themselves as so high and mighty that they would not dare set foot off of their cloud of condescencion, but from my experience, those individuals are few and far between, and most poets have a pretty fair assessment of their own status: Their limited fame that comes from the academic and erudite set is a nice commodity, but it’s not like the National Enquirer is going to send paparazzi after a poet laureate anytime soon.

I suppose the lesson in all this is one in the basic tenets of courtesy: Even when you have achieved Pulitzers and Pushcarts, even when the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker simultaneously publish your work, and even when your book sells its first million copies, you, poet, still have the obligation to remain personable. The example set by our predecessors is a positive one, and we have the obligation to uphold it.